Next to Normal falls short of expectations

Next to Normal, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, revolves around the Goodman family as it struggles against the effects of mental illness, drug abuse, ethics, the cons of psychiatric therapy, and themes of loss and acceptance. Last week, the show ran at the Benedum Theater starring the original cast.

The musical is divided into two acts, all dealing with scenes of domesticity and psychiatric therapy. Act I begins when suburban mother Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) waits up late for her son, Gabe (Curt Hansen), who has been out past his curfew. She attempts to comfort her anxious daughter, Natalie (Emma Hunton), about school. Her husband, Dan (Asa Somers), gets ready for the day and they sing “Just Another Day.” The scene takes an unsettling and bizarre turn when Diana leaves sandwiches all over the table, the chairs, and the floor, calling it lunch.

The rest of the play deals with Diana’s illness and treatment. Her illness is revealed to be a 16-year-old case of bipolar disorder with hallucinations, triggered by the loss of a child. Medications only rob her of all feeling, psychotherapy is ineffective, and she attempts suicide. As a final resort, she receives electroconvulsive therapy, causing her to lose her memory in the process. The musical ends with Diana leaving her family, concluding that “some cuts are too deep.” She tells Dan that his support keeps her from learning how to get up on her own. Dan, heartbroken, is left depressed in need of therapy himself.

The stage was gorgeous. The set was divided into four floors, almost like boxes, and each floor served as a different locations. During Diana’s psychotherapy sessions, the front façade of her home, on the second and third floor, became an image of her face. This changed the set to be her entire psyche. Although somewhat minimalist in nature, the set was interesting and engaging.

The cast, for the most part, was phenomenal. Asa Somers in particular stood out with the strongest voice. However, it was unsettling to listen to a cast sing with upbeat voices about horrible things. The score wasn’t particularly impressive, and none of the songs left a lasting impression. However, the cast sang well and the acting was solid on the part of all cast members. Curt Hansen in particular made a great, ominous Gabe, his movements almost reflecting a dark ballet.

Unfortunately, Alice Ripley, although a Tony-winning singer for her role as Diana, had a terrible voice. Online reviews reveal that people have noted a recent change in her voice for the worse. In comparison to the official soundtrack, Diana’s voice was completely different; in the soundtrack, her voice was melodious and she could enunciate words. At the show, her voice was hoarse, and her words were sometimes indecipherable. It is rumored that her voice has been damaged, but if Alice Ripley has decided to make a character change, it was a horrible decision.

The biggest disappointment was that, although this was a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical, it fell short on many levels. Instead of delving deep into the truth of mental illness, the show only seemed to reflect the common misperceptions about what living with someone with mental illness must be like.

To be sure, certain medications can cause some people to feel strange side effects. However, Diana was hallucinating. Her hallucinations were not small; they were pervasive and completely delusional. Such cases only benefit from medication, despite the minor side effects. Furthermore, the side effects that Diana expresses in “I Miss the Mountains” would probably not be applicable to someone with her condition.

In addition, the musical ended with Diana leaving her family, and nothing was fixed. Dan’s character was such a refreshing hero. He remained a loyal and supportive husband for 16 years. There are scarce examples of positive husbands in modern literature. He did every possible thing someone could do to fix a problem, yet was in the end indirectly blamed. Diana leaves to live with her grandparents, and we can only assume that now this elderly couple must chase their daughter around the house to take the knives out of her hands.

Human flaws and mental illnesses exist. However, it should be an artistic imperative to express the reality of mental illness and treatment. The truth is, Next to Normal was more successful in expressing the misconceptions and misinformation surrounding mental illness than revealing the reality. To be fair, its flaws are probably something only people experienced with mental illness will be able to recognize. Next to Normal was overall an enjoyable show, but the viewer should keep in mind that its depiction of mental illness is not completely factual.